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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The King’s Speech Takes the Oscar—But it’s More Than a Movie to Me

“In no other country in the world is the love of property keener or more alert than in the United States, and nowhere else does the majority display less inclination toward doctrines which in any way threaten the way property is owned.” — Alexis de Tocqueville

Last Sunday the King’s Speech won the Oscar for the best435px-King_George_VI_of_England,_formal_photo_portrait,_circa_1940-1946 motion picture of the year. The film is about King George VI, who ascended to the throne of the United Kingdom in 1936 when his older brother Edward abdicated the throne due to his romantic relationship with the American divorcé Wallace Simpson. The film is not about Edward’s abdication or Wallace Simpson, it’s about King George’s battle with stuttering.

This movie is important to John Stossel and me because we are both stutters. Before I get into my story you should read what John Stossel wrote about his experiences with stuttering. Much of what Stossel says in his column on mirrors my experience with this malady.

Stossel writes: Because "The King's Speech," a movie about King George's effort to overcome stuttering, won the Oscar for best picture, reporters have been interviewing me about my stuttering.

Some ask why they don't hear me stutter on TV. Others wonder why a stutterer is on TV in the first place. Here's my explanation. Since I was a child, my stuttering has come and gone. Sometimes I was sure the problem had disappeared -- then it would return with such a vengeance I'd fear saying anything. I'd stay silent in class. I avoided parties. When I was old enough to date, sometimes I'd telephone a girl and try to speak, but nothing would come out. I'd just hang up. Now, because of caller ID, stutterers can't do that.

I never planned on a career in TV. After graduating from Princeton, I was accepted by the University of Chicago's graduate school in hospital management. But I wasn't eager to go to grad school. I hated school. Princeton bored me. I thought that if I took a real job, that would make me appreciate school. I went to every job interview I could get and took the offer that gave me the longest free flight: researcher at KGW-TV in Portland, Ore.

Work turned out to be better than school! And instead of paying tuition, my employer paid me! So I kept working at the TV station.

I never thought I'd have to speak on TV.

I was wrong. One day, my boss told me to cover a fire and report -- on the air. "I can't," I said. "I stutter!" My boss said my stuttering wasn't that bad and ordered me to cover the story.

In truth, my stuttering was pretty bad, but I concealed it by using synonyms for words that I knew would make me stutter (mostly those beginning with plosive sounds -- d, g and b). That made it tough to do consumer reporting because words like "better" and "different" are basic to product comparisons. I got around that problem by using clumsy phrases like "works well," "is superior to," etc. When I did stutter, I'd go to the edit room and cut the blocks out.

Then the station told me to announce election expenditure totals -- live. I thought I might pull it off because many of us stutterers (James Earl Jones, for example) can be fluent when we act or read out loud. But my stuttering returned.

It was a stomach-turning shock when, live on the air, I realized there's no workable synonym for "dollar." (There's "bucks," but that isn't dignified, and it begins with a plosive sound, too.) I was still in mid-sentence -- saying a politician had "spent 95 thousand d-d-dol-" -- when they simply cut me off the air. I felt humiliated. I avoided live TV after that.

I went to speech therapists for help, but I still stuttered. Hypnotists, acupuncturists, psychologists and transcendental meditation gurus promised they could cure me. None of them could.

On days when any live work was scheduled, I'd wake in a cold sweat anticipating the humiliation that might come hours later when people would watch my mouth lock. That fear made me decide to quit.

But then I tried one more stuttering treatment. I heard about a three-week clinic in Roanoke, Va., called the Hollins Communications Research Center. It re-teaches stutterers how to make every sound. Apparently, stutterers, even when we don't block on words, initiate sounds more abruptly, and that often leads to stutters. In Roanoke, they had us sit in little rooms reading words into a microphone, concentrating on beginning each sound gently. When we hit a word too hard, a red light came on. The therapy is tedious, and it doesn't work for everyone, but it worked for me. After three weeks, I felt like a cork had been removed from my throat. Years of speech poured out. People couldn't shut me up.

I'm not "cured" -- I still stutter sometimes -- and I still must practice the techniques I learned. But my stuttering is no longer the obstacle it was. For more information about stuttering therapy, consult the Stuttering Foundation at .

That’s John Stossel’s story, now for mine. I grew up in a large extended family in Cleveland, Ohio during the days of WWII. When I was 6 or 7 years-old the family became concerned about my speech. I was developing a severe case of stuttering. The teachers at public grade school I was attending become so concerned they had several meetings with my mother to see what could be done to help me.

One teacher recommended a speech therapist and my mother arranged a visit with him to see if he could help me overcome the stuttering. After he administered a series of tests — including IQ and Rorschach Tests — to determine my intelligence and sanity he found me to be sane with an above average IQ (140) He felt the problem was caused by nervousness and he would treat me by training me to relax and be calm. Nothing he did worked and my parents wasted a lot of money.

The next step was to transfer me from a public school to a Catholic elementary school. This seemed to help as the teaching nuns were a bit more patient with me and I felt more comfortable in this environment. I even sang in the boys’ choir and studied the Latin to become an altar boy. Before taking the test to qualify as an altar boy we moved to the suburbs and I was enrolled in another Catholic school. This is when my stuttering became worse.

It was a new school, with new friends to make and I was fearful to talk to people because of the stuttering. In the new school I started in the fifth grade and finished the year fine. The next year I entered the sixth grade and midway through the year the nuns decides I should be advanced to the seventh grade. This was a rough year. By the eighth grade I was comfortable again and I had made a few friends who overlooked my stuttering.

When I entered public high school I was terrified. Now I would have to change classrooms and teachers every 45 minutes. This made me extremely anxious and I would sit in he back of the classroom, as Stossel did, hoping not the be called upon to read aloud. I did not do well in the ninth grade.

The tenth grade was better and between the tenth and eleventh grade I got a summer job as a surveyor’s assistant. Working in the field was good for me. Like Stossel I could focus on work and the stuttering was not too important. I did well at the job and after graduation I continued in the profession for the next 55 years.

Stuttering did not help me with girls. I was afraid to call them on the phone, as Stossel related, and because of my feelings of inferiority I was very hesitant to ask a girl out. This continued for some years and I gradually began overcoming the fear of talking to girls and finally met my wife to be in 1959. Thank God she did not care about how I spoke, but was more caring about who I was. She was and still is the love of my life, who gave me a great deal of courage to overcome the stuttering.

When we moved to California I took a position as a surveyor with the California Division of Highways (now Caltrans) and was assigned to a great supervisor. I proved to him that I was one of the best and he gave me all the responsibility I could handle including a jump in grade without taking an examination. I did very well with the CDH. I was talented, smart and I worked real hard. You see this is how I could mask the fact I was a stutter. Like Stossel, when you work hard and bury yourself in the job you think you are hiding the fact that you stutter. This is why many stutters do well at work or in their profession — they believe if they give 110% they will be accepted.

In 1964 I passed the professional exams for licensure as a Land Surveyor, one of only two in the entire department. This gave me another credential to use as crutch. Because I was licensed as a professional land surveyor I was asked, by my supervisor, to teach survey classes within the department. Again, like Stossel with his news director, I refused because of the horrific fear I had to speak in public. My supervisor would not take no for an answer and I reluctantly began teaching classes. I can recall driving to the building where the classes were held and my stomach was turning over and over with fear. I discovered that if I really prepared the material I was going to teach the people attending the classes were a lot more interested in what I had to say than how I said it. By the third or fourth session I was doing fine — no fear and very little stuttering. Thank God for that understanding and supportive supervisor. As a B-29 pilot over Japan in WWII he understood fear and he knew what it would take to conqueror it.

After ten years with the CDH I left to go into business with two partners. I now a had a new plateau to climb — talking to clients. For he most part I let my partners do the business development while I handled he back room work. Eventually I became comfortable with clients I knew but there was no way I could cold call a potential client.

After several years in business I was asked to make a presentation at a conference of professional surveyors. Again, I refused due to my fear of public speaking. One again a close friend and colleague convinced me to make the presentation as he felt I could offer something of value. My friend, who was one of the most respected and sought after lecturers in the profession spoke with a pronounced lisp. He had his palate crushed by the butt of a rifle wielded by a Japanese soldier while a POW in WWII. This did not seem to affect him so I was shamed into taking his advice.

I made the presentation with a million butterflies in my stomach and was given a round of applause upon its completion. Afterwards people came up to me and congratulated me on a great presentation. I was learning that much of the stuttering was caused by my own fear and attitude.

As the years pasted I became less and less fearful of my stuttering and for the most part overcame it. I was able to make client presentations, do business development, give lectures and even testify in front of a Congressional committee. Like Stossel I still have occasions of stuttering, but it does not bother me any longer. In fact I am often chided for talking too much. Perhaps I am just making up for lost opportunities to speak.

Stuttering is recognized by the federal government as a handicap under the Americans with Disabilities Act. I never felt I was disabled, although I wouldn't mind one of those license plates allowing me to park next to the store or restaurant. I don’t think they give them out to stutters.

According to the Stuttering Foundation of America More than 68 million people worldwide stutter, which is about 1% of the population. In the United States, that's over 3 million Americans who stutter. Many of these 3 million are children going through what John Stossel and I experienced. They are probably above average intelligence, but doing poorly in school. They are fearful of making friends and lack self-confidence. They may be loners who lack the skills for social integration. If you know anyone like this there is help for them, but the best help will come when they have small successes in speaking with people and have a few mentors along the way.

Emily Blunt, James Earl Jones, John Stossel, Bill Walton, Mel Tillis, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, Carly Simon, Annie Glenn, Nicholas Brendon, Ken Venturi, Bob Love, John Updike, King George VI — all are famous people who stuttered and went on to have successful lives. I hope the movie the King’s Speech will provide encouragement for many of those 68 million stutters.

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